If nationhood is a peoples’ sense of their past, then Stompin’ Tom Connors has contributed greatly to our national identity with his backward-glancing songs. Whether it’s courageous cowpunchers, ghostly shipwreck sites or bold mainland-linking bridges, Stompin’ Tom has sung about this country’s people, places and things with incomparable passion and conviction. Entertaining and instructive, he reminds us of familiar characters and events from our past while rescuing from obscurity some that never showed up on our collective radar screen in the first place. That takes genius. No wonder they gave him an honorary doctorate.
Dr. Tom’s historical songs, the best of which are collected here, neatly divide into four distinct categories: survival, disaster, heroes and legends. Survival songs range from one of his earliest, "Martin Hartwell Story," about an inexperienced Arctic pilot who crashed in the far north, to his most recent, "Erika Nordby, Canada’s Miracle Child," about the Edmonton toddler who recovered after being found frozen and clinically dead in a snowy backyard. Disasters, either man-made or natural tragedies, have often triggered some of Stompin’ Tom’s most memorable material. Here, they take the form of songs about shipwrecks ("Sable Island," "Wreck of the Tammy Ann," "Curse of the Marc Guylaine"), a landslide ("How the Mountain Came Down"), an underground inferno ("Fire in the Mine") and a viaduct that collapsed in Vancouver in 1958, killing 19 construction workers ("The Bridge Came Tumblin’ Down").
Similarly, Stompin’ Tom has been quick to document heroes in song. Some are well-known, like the Maritime music legends he sings about in "Tribute to Wilf Carter" and "Don Messer Story." Others are more obscure, such as the former slave turned cattle drover celebrated in "Cowboy, Johnny Ware" or the ace Canadian war pilot depicted in "Wop May." Recognizing that Canada needs more legends to liven up its history, Stompin’ Tom wrote now-classic songs like "Big Joe Mufferaw," about the Ottawa Valley giant who may have inspired America’s Paul Bunyan and “drank a bucket of gin/then beat the living tar out of 29 men.” On a less violent note, he told the tale of a brave gelding that swam back to its island home and its loving owners in "Horse Called Farmer." Legends don’t get any sweeter.
At least one of Stompin’ Tom’s history lessons came from a book: Black Donnelly’s Massacre was written directly from Thomas P. Kelly’s pocket novel about the infamous outlaw family from Lucan, Ontario. Others, like this year’s "Erika Nordby," sprang right out of the front pages of the newspaper. But most of the stories in Stompin’ Tom’s songs were gleaned first hand, from the 15 years he spent criss-crossing the country working on coal boats, driving truck, toiling his way through factory, mining and logging jobs, or else hitch-hiking and hoboing. While touring as a performer, he has always made a point of writing regionally-based material and claims to have a song for almost every town he visits. It’s his lifelong mission to tell us who we are as a nation. “The fact is,” says Dr. Tom, “the people of this country are starvin’ for stories and songs about themselves. If we don’t have it, we’re gone. We won’t have a country anymore.”
Nicholas Jennings is the author of Before the Gold Rush: Flashbacks to the Dawn of the Canadian Sound and Fifty Years of Music: The Story of EMI Music Canada